An American Perspective on India's Defence Reforms

While India is at times criticized for its slow innovation and change in its defence organization, it must be remembered that in the US case, jointness and the creation of united commands was a process that was neither short nor easy. Moreover, many of the arguments against further unification echo earlier American concerns.
By Patrick C. Bratton Aug 19, 2011

By Patrick C. Bratton

It was announced in July that a new task force on Defence, headed by Naresh Chandra, would be meeting this summer. One of the more debated questions surrounding this task force is whether or not they recommend further steps to integrate the defence establishment, like a Chief of Defence Staff or even integrated military commands.

Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the Kargil War, the Group of Ministers (GoM) report recommended the creation of both a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and joint commands. Indian services Chiefs have been wearing two hats since the 1950s: administrative heads of their service, and also operational commanders during crisis or wartime. The creation of a CDS and joint commands would take away operational control from the service chiefs, making them administrative bodies and giving the political leadership a single point of military advice. Apparently, some participants of GoM wanted to have more integrated commands, in particular regional ones. Because there was opposition to this, two experimental commands were created: the first Indian joint regional or theatre command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command, and the first functional joint command, the Strategic Forces Command.

However, there are several arguments against the development of unity in the armed services. First, the military leadership seems to the divided on the issue. Some services think that jointness and integration threaten their autonomy and even their existence. In particular, the Air Force leadership is generally against the development of theatre commands and the CDS. In contrast, the Navy’s leadership seems most positive about having more of these commands. The army stands somewhere in-between and is internally divided. Another counter-argument to further integration (or a Chief of Defence Staff, or more regional or theatre commands) is that unlike global, expeditionary powers like the US, India does not need them.

While India is at times criticized for its slow innovation and change in its defence organization, it must be remembered that in the US case, jointness and the creation of united commands was a process that was neither short nor easy. Moreover, many of the arguments against further unification echo earlier American concerns.

The US maintained its archaic national security decision making structure with separate War and Naval Departments through both world wars. Even though the US emerged as one of the great powers in the late 19th Century, it was only in 1947-49 that the US sought to integrate its unify its military and defence establishment with the National Security Act, which unified the two departments and created other key institutions like the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. However, even with the National Security Act, the process of unification was far from complete. In the US case, the US Navy was the service that most opposed integration and jointness (much like the Indian Air Force) and with its allies in Congress it managed to slow and dilute the unification process. As a result of the US Navy’s efforts, it took another 10 years to create a strong Department of Defence with a powerful Secretary.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff kept their operational as well as staff responsibilities. Moreover, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was really only a first amongst equals, and consensus was necessary because effectively every Chief had a veto. This arrangement was kept throughout most of the Cold War, exacerbating inter-services rivalry in the Vietnam War and contributing to disasters, such as the botched Iranian hostage rescue in 1979 and the Beirut barracks bombings in 1982. Something had to be done in the aftermath of these two disasters and the many difficulties during the invasion of Grenada.

Senator Barry Goldwater and Congressman Bill Nichols finally unified the services with the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. In addition to establishing jointness on the services, the Goldwater-Nichols Act did two important things: (1) it elevated the power of the Chairman over the others (removing the veto) and made him the single point of military advice to the President; and (2) it removed operational control away from the service Chiefs and gave it to the theatre commanders (like Pacific Command, Central Command, etc.).

Second, it is often forgotten that there also was a cultural argument against defence reform. This stems from a historical opposition to large standing armies, a general reluctance to have an expansionist foreign policy. As a result of these factors, there was a long-time resistance in the 19th and early 20th centuries to reform and modernize the War Department to bring it up to the standards of the other great powers. While the US was the greatest economic power by the start of the 20th Century, it had a small army and lacked an effective General Staff. However, the structures were put into place in the 1940s because of the demands of wartime and the realization that political and military affairs had to be integrated in a nuclear era.

So this leads to two general observations: First, the process towards defence unification is long and difficult. Second, this process can be compatible with democratic values even though it takes time. In the first case, the criticisms of how slowly the Indian Army moves towards jointness and unified commands have to be put into context. Most countries’ paths toward defence reforms are long and difficult.

Ultimately, after 40 years of minimal reforms initiated inside the Defence Department and by the President, it took the Congressional leadership to force these reforms on both the services and the Department of Defence. Goldwater-Nichols happened because of a perfect storm of circumstances: a series of high profile disasters that highlighted the problems of inter-service rivalry and the chain of command, a time period when the public was interested in defence matters because of the Cold War in the 1980s, the willingness of some current and former service leaders to support unification, and the leadership of two committed legislatures with irreproachable defence credentials.

However, the emergence of a “perfect storm” in the Indian case in the near future seem quite unlikely. As is well-known, defence is not a major political issue and few political leaders have championed defence reform. The few times defence reforms have had any popular moment was in the aftermath of disasters like 1962, 1999, and to a limited extent, Mumbai in 2008. Hopes that this task force will lead to radical defence reforms are unlikely to be met. It will likely take another security disaster and for a group of Lok Sabha members to start taking defence issues seriously and invest political capital in them.

Second, similar to Indian arguments that a CDS or unified commands are not “Indian” or not necessary given India’s foreign policy, the US had a similar cultural and historical debate against defence reform. There was a strong belief that the structures of national security were incompatible with a democracy. However, the realities of fighting the Second World War and the Cold War changed people’s minds and the US has successfully balanced national security demands with a democratic system. Not always perfectly, but the democratic political system and culture remained intact.

(Dr. Patrick C. Bratton is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hawai`i Pacific University. He can be reached at: pbratton@hpu.edu.)


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